Tim Sparks is not a mere guitarist; he’s a musician. In fact, at times on these two new releases, he seems to transcend mere music to become a magician.
Sparks began playing guitar as a kid in Winston/Salem, North Carolina, picking out melodies by ear on an ancient Stella flat-top. He received his first guitar at age 11, when encephalitis kept him out of school for a full year. He taught himself country blues as well as the gospel tunes his grandma played on piano in a Blue Ridge Mountains church. He later studied classical music with Jesus Silva and Andres Segovia. These diverse influences helped him win the ’93 National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship.
Sparks had released two prior albums, ’94’s The Nutcracker and ’96’s Guitar Bazaar, winning him laudatory praise by luminaries such as Leo Kottke and Bill Frisell.
These two new releases expand Sparks’ horizons in many directions. One String Leads to Another follows the tradition Sparks established in his earlier releases of blending rhythms, melodies, and tunings from numerous world sounds into a musical melting pot. A stellar cut from the album, “Pata Negra,” was inspired by a Portuguese sojourn and named after a local prosciutto. The song riffs on northeastern Brazilian musical styles, a fitting and fascinating musical intersection with Portuguese Fado as Brazil was once Portugal’s colony. Other cuts trade on similar world-wise connections – blending bluegrass, Turkish scales, Mexican melodies, Moroccan tunings, and especially Balkan sounds, one of Sparks’ favorite influences.
Neshamah, on the other hand, focuses solely on Jewish musical traditions, but circumnavigates the globe in its breadth through the Near and Middle East, Mediterranean, Europe, North Africa, and the Americas. Sparks comments in his liner notes that in his experience, no other musical genre – except Gypsy music – “is found in such far-flung regions while retaining a core harmonic vocabulary.”
This is a truly stunning album created with vision. Sparks melds elements of flamenco, Middle-Eastern oud, Tchaikovsky and Bart”k, as well as good old American jazz. The tone he draws from his well-traveled 1954 Martin 00-17 is otherworldly, so warm and deep that at times you feel as though you can reach out and grasp the melody as it floats by.
You owe it to yourself to listen to these two albums.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.